Open letter: ‘It’s time we stopped putting our children on trial’

Auckland club Uni-Mount Bohemian have done away with using player trials to decide which children should benefit the most from club and coaching resources. The club’s Director of Football explains why …

By Altan Ramadan

With the regular 2023 football season long over, we are now enjoying warmer climes, longer days and weekends with family and friends.

However, the end of one season also signals the start of anxiety and tension for thousands of young aspiring players.

This will build to a crescendo as the inevitable happens in early 2024.

This is when the high priests of football, clipboard in hand, pass their expert judgment upon young futures.

Some kids will survive for another 12 months. Many, unfortunately, will not.

I’m talking, of course, about the nonsensical and outdated practice of putting kids through the ritual of trials.

In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “ritual” is defined as “done in accordance with social custom or normal protocol”.

The practice of trials is just that: an historical custom repeated year in and year out and is accepted protocol to separate players based on some perceived, arbitrary benchmark.

Here in New Zealand, the practice of ability grouping, or “streaming” in educational settings, is another accepted norm.

However, is it beneficial for all our students?

World-renowned in her field, Auckland University professor and researcher Christine Rubie-Davies, MNZM, who specializes in high-expectation teaching, would argue otherwise.

Christine Rubie-Davies.

She says:

“Students who are placed in ability groups learn different things depending on what group they are in.

“Students in high-ability groups are often given stimulating, challenging, and engaging activities, whereas students in low-ability groups are given repetitive, skill-based, and low-level tasks.

“Put simply, students in these different groups learn more or less because they are getting more or less opportunity to learn.” [1]

Sound familiar?

It should, because the situation is no different in football clubs up and down the country.

The minority of players deemed to have potential and “talent” on the back of trials are given the vast majority of club resources, including accredited coaches, more frequent trainings and competition matches.

The vast majority of kids, however, are left with a well-meaning but often ill-equipped parent, with one training a week and even less game time.

With this disparity in learning opportunities, is it any wonder that those in the selected group progress more quickly, reinforcing the idea that the coach was right to select them?

This self-fulfilling prophecy is known as the Pygmalion Effect and is a well-studied phenomenon in educational psychology.

In his YouTube video below, Trevor Ragan defines this effect as one in which “our labels and expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

That is, adult or teacher expectations for their students can, and often do, determine their learning outcomes.

What has all of this got to do with football?

A lot, actually. Taking the viewpoint that our training sessions are essentially an open-air classroom, we have taken the research of Christine Rubie-Davies and others, and incorporated it into our development programmes.

Thus, at Uni-Mount Bohemian AFC, we have promised to hold high expectations for all our young athletes.

Remaining steadfast to our ethos of ‘Football For All’, we do not, and will not, hold player trials.

Taking this one step further, we have flipped the trial process on its head by putting coaches, not players, on trial.

Players turn up to a training session; they assess the coach’s ability to provide an engaging, safe and enjoyable learning environment.

If they like what they experience, they stay.

If not, they seek fulfilment elsewhere.

All our players then train together, play together and learn together.

The result of this innovative approach has been a joy to behold, laying the foundations for the astounding progress and development of all our young players.

At Uni-Mount Bohemian AFC, the precedent has been set.

It is time for all clubs to join us in ending the historical ritual of putting children on trial.

It can be done. It should be done for the betterment of all our young athletes.

Main photo credit: istockphoto Matimix.



Altan Ramadan

Altan Ramadan has been the Director of Football at Auckland club Uni-Mount Bohemian since 2016. He is an OFC/NZF B Licence coach and is the founder and director of coaching at Top Flight Football Academy. He is a former national age group international for New Zealand.

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